Helen Longstreth was Highly Commended for the Life Writing Prize 2019 for The Joy of Cooking. Life Writing Prize 2019 Judge Inua Ellams said: “I was grabbed completely by this story.” Judge Colin Grant described the piece as: “a beautifully crafted memoir”.
In this interview, Helen shares how she came to write The Joy of Cooking, the mixed emotions in achieving a commendation for a piece of writing so personal and how her greatest inspiration is her Mother.
How does it feel to be highly commended in the Life Writing Prize?
As a writer just starting out, it is hugely encouraging, especially bearing in mind that it was on a subject so close to my heart, and so difficult to write. At the same time it feels strange winning a commendation for a piece that came out of my dad’s struggles with alcoholism. In writing it I wanted to try and understand him better – to paint a picture that held together all the tangled strands of love and pain, the good with the bad. So I’m glad that in doing this I’ve written something that speaks to others and hope that it also does him justice.
Can you tell us a little about your highly commended piece, ‘The Joy of Cooking’, how you came to write it, what the challenges were in writing it and why you chose to enter it into the Prize.
I came to this piece wanting to write about my dad’s struggles with drink and depression, It started with a few scraps that I wrote for the life-writing workshop on my creative writing MA, but I wasn’t sure how to make sense of them, or him. It was only after noticing that everything I’d written revolved around food that I found the heart of the story. After that I sat down with my sister and we spoke about more episodes and recipes we remembered. It was my sister who said it was cooking for his family that got him through the day and allowed him to give something back no matter the way he felt inside.
Focusing on food allowed me to illustrate my dad in all his moods and quirks in a more tangible way, and also brought some humour and lightness to a piece that would inevitably be very sad. I felt like I was working things out along the way which also meant it was a challenging and emotionally draining piece to write. It was hard to know how much to say, or what spoke for itself. I tried to simplify my dad’s history to give more space to the food, but I would have liked to include more meals, more episodes, and more of the family here and in America. Most of all I wanted to create a fair and real picture that brought him to life – which proved very hard for someone so complicated and who changed like the weather! I know there is still a lot of the story missing, and a lot more to write.
Tell us about your writing; how long have you been writing for, why do you write?
I’ve been writing most of my life in some kind of way (most of it badly) but have only taken it seriously over the last few years. Now I write because I’ve got to the point where I don’t know how not to. Often it’s a pain and seems a bit of an odd way to be spending so much time. At the same time it’s a wonderful way to live and navigate the world and I can’t imagine doing anything else.
Do you have any tips for budding life writers out there?
I don’t feel like I have much authority but I learned from my tutors and other writers not to shy away from the subjects that are difficult or hurt – that seems to be where the most interesting or compelling stuff comes from. Be open to being wrong or learning stuff along the way and be nice to yourself, especially when the writing sends you into dark sinkholes!
Are you working on anything at the minute?
I’m working on a novel or something like that, though right now it feels like more of a fragmented mess. But I’ve got to a point now where the writing is going well and I’m enjoying letting whatever it is flow out.
Who are your writing inspirations?
I get new obsessions all the time, particularly with short story writers but I go back Lucia Berlin, Lorrie Moore and Grace Paley often. I love the way each of these writers finds a unique way to depict the humour and tragedy (and hope!) at the heart of everyday life. At the moment I’m completely absorbed in Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive. Overall, though, I’d say my greatest inspiration is my mother – a wonderful writer and teacher and a daily inspiration, in life and in writing!
Helen Longstreth is a writer currently living in London. She studied previously at the University of Manchester, The University of California, and recently completed the MA in Creative Writing at Goldsmiths where she was awarded runner up for the 2019 Pat Kavanagh award. She has worked as the assistant editor for the online magazines POSTmatter and Motherland, and is now working on a novel. You can read her highly commended piece The Joy of Cooking, in the Life Writing Prize showcase here.
Published 20 May 2019